Lienn was out of the flyer the instant it touched down on the beach, and only Sky's quick reflexes prevented her from running heedlessly toward the burning village. Even then, he just barely caught her with a hand around her wrist. It was an awkward hold, one she could have easily broken had she been thinking more clearly, but instead she simply tugged futilely at her captive arm, her gaze darting from the flaming trees that dotted the outskirts of the beach to the great pillars of smoke rising from the village to the west.
She was hardly aware of it when he wrangled his free arm around her waist, her back flush against his chest, but his urgent voice speaking into her right ear managed to penetrate her mindless fear.
"Lienn, stop! Calm down. Think!"
'"I have to help them!"
"I know that. But what if Gao's men are still in the village? You can't help anyone if you're dead."
"You don't understand–"
"Of course I do! You think I didn't feel that same panic when Pinmei was taken? But you and Hui made me slow down and be smart; because you helped me, my daughter is safe. Now you need to let me help you." His voice was urgent, but beneath it was more than a hint of fear; the effect cut through her terror, and after a moment the fight drained out of her struggles.
Lienn nodded reluctantly. "We have to be smart," she echoed dimly and allowed him to turn her back toward the flyer.
She saw Hui and Pinmei standing beside the flyer, and was vaguely aware of Kang climbing down after them, but she couldn't seem to focus. Her eyes kept drifting to the river; the placid waters where she and Dawn Star often studied shone red and gold – like lava – a reflection of the nearby fires.
She turned her head towards the school, her gaze flitting about as she searched for some sign of movement from the village path, but all she saw was the glow of flames in the distance. The smoke was so thick it blocked out the sun, turning the sky an angry red as it reflected the flames, and its acrid scent seemed to coat her nose and throat.
Her head snapped around as she realized Hui had been speaking to her.
"I asked if Kang and Pinmei will be safe here," the soldier said crossly and pointed to the dirt path Lienn had been observing. "Is that the only route to the village?"
Lienn shook her head awkwardly. "It splits." She pointed to a tunnel a short distance away, then realized that the entrance had caved in. Her eyes wandered the hills – too steep to cross on foot – that cradled the beach and the lone path that divided them. "Yes," she amended, "that's the only route to the village."
Hui nodded thoughtfully. "So if we clear the path, any of Gao's men who may have lingered will have to go through us to get to Kang and the flyer?"
"Right," Lienn agreed, trying to force her mind to clear.
"Good," the older woman replied with authority. "Kang, wait here with Pinmei. Stay close to the flyer, and if anyone other than the three of us comes down that path, you get back in and take off as fast as possible. Just circle around until we return; whatever we find, we'll meet you back here."
Kang looked surprisingly lucid as he nodded understanding.
Hui turned back to Sky and Lienn. "All right. Let's head for the village and see what we can find. Stay alert." She eyed Lienn worriedly as she gave that final order.
Lienn turned toward the valley path, listening as Sky instructed Pinmei to wait near the flyer and stay close to Kang. She took a few steps, then stopped as something on the far side of the beach caught her eye. She jogged towards it, her heart pounding with dread, and dropped to her knees beside a body.
It was Old Ming, just a harmless old man who spent most of his days wandering the beach. He lay amidst the rubble of the statue of Emperor Sun, a statue he tended without fail in reverence of his esteemed Emperor.
And now that emperor has killed him... The thought was hazy, surreal. It didn't seem possible. Maybe the emperor doesn't know what happened here... Maybe it was all the Lotus Assassins...
But that thought didn't comfort her any. How could the emperor be unaware of what his top agents were doing? The emperor was either ignorant or indifferent. And neither option was acceptable.
A warm hand rested on her shoulder. "Lienn?" Sky's tone was as gentle as his touch.
"How could this happen?" she asked dimly, trying to make sense of a world gone mad.
Hui knelt beside her and pressed her fingers to Old Ming's neck. "He's gone, Lienn," she said, rising. "Come. Let's see if there's someone here we can still help."
With a faint nod, Lienn allowed Sky to help her to her feet.
They hurried through the narrow valley, carefully avoiding the still-burning trees, until it opened into the town square. The entire village was in flames, every building, every arch, the stench of it so thick Lienn could barely breathe.
But worse were the bodies. A flyer had crashed on the wide stone stairs that led toward Gujin's workshop, and the weaponmaster himself lay dead at the bottom of them, his staff still gripped in his hand. Merchant Fen Do's remains weren't far from the corner shop where he peddled his wares. Townspeople and students alike lay in the streets, abandoned where they had fallen.
Lienn's steps were tentative as she walked among the dead, noting every face she recognized, remembering every name she could. Someone was going to answer for this.
But first to the school.
She steeled herself and stalked toward the gate. The wall that separated the school grounds from the village was crumbling, the gate hanging off its hinges, but Lienn didn't slow down. There had to be someone left alive.
Down the hill she found Dawn Star's garden trampled and the little pavilion where they'd talked just beginning to ignite. There was a pang of sorrow in her heart, but she didn't break her stride as she passed them and crossed the little bridge that spanned the creek; her eyes skated over the mill's waterwheel where it lay on its side, broken and burning in the golden flow of the creek, before darting away. But there was no respite; the destruction seemed all-consuming.
Lienn walked with determination, barely aware of her companions' presence just behind her. She jogged up the hill, past flaming wreckage and burned-out trees, to the entrance of the school proper. The archway was on fire and appeared to be in danger of collapsing, its doors blasted completely off their hinges, and a great tower of smoke rose from the area beyond. There was no question that this had been the focus of the attack.
Lienn passed through the battered gate and simply stared.
Everything was burning; not a single structure remained intact. The walls of the dormitory were reduced to tinder; the roof of Master Li's house had collapsed in on itself. Every tree, every bush… even the wooden fence surrounding the sparring arena was scorched and crumbling into cinders. The stink of charred wood and stone – and oh gods, was that flesh? – thick and sour, filled her nose and coated her mouth.
The air was hazy with smoke, but as she took a few restless steps forward, she began making out the dark silhouettes littering the ground. Bodies. So many bodies. Every name was a knife in her heart. Lin. Jing Woo. Kia Min. She spotted a large mass that could only be Smiling Mountain – what was left of him. He seemed to have fallen defending some of the younger students, judging by the small bodies huddled nearby. She didn't dare get close enough to find out for certain. And then there were the ones that were unidentifiable, the ones burned beyond recognition. She didn't know what was worse: the faces she could name or the ones she couldn't.
She'd thought the things she'd seen in Gao the Greater's lair were horrific, but this…
Lienn dropped to her knees and wretched, what little was in her stomach vacating with haste. She was vaguely aware of someone kneeling beside her, rubbing her back in soothing circles, but her stomach continued to heave long after it was empty. She braced her hands against the cobbles, the stone warm beneath her palms, and as she sucked in one searing breath after another, she was tempted to simply collapse there and hope it all just went away.
But that idea was thwarted by the strong arm that curled around her waist, pulling her back against a solid chest. "I'm sorry." Sky's voice was soft in her ear, roughened by smoke and horror. "I'm so so sorry."
Lienn nodded, swallowing hard against the bile in her burning throat. "I need to find Dawn Star."
Sky held her closer. "Lienn… I'm so sorry, but no one could have…"
He trailed off as she shifted just far enough to gaze up at him. "I know." She could hear the hopelessness in her voice; her own rasping words sounded alien in her ears. "I know we may not be able to find her… her body. But I have to try."
For a long moment, Sky seemed to stare into her soul. Then, he nodded ever so faintly. With a heavy sigh he climbed to his feet, wearily drawing her up to join him.
The school was laid out in a circular pattern, with a ring of buildings around the outside and the oval training arena in the middle. They walked along the open path between the two, now littered with debris and corpses. With each still form they passed, Lienn's heart quailed a little more; she was sure that Sky's arm, secure around her waist, was the only thing holding her up.
"There are far more dead pirates here than we saw in the village." Hui's no-nonsense voice came from behind them; lost in shock and grief, Lienn had forgotten the soldier was there. "Clearly your students put up a good defense. I think that one's even a Lotus Assassin."
Lienn turned, her gaze following as the older woman moved a short distance away and kicked over a body.
"Yes, definitely a Lotus Assassin." Hui scowled down at it as Sky led Lienn over for her first look at their enemy.
For the level of fear the Lotus Assassins inspired, she had expected something a bit grander; this woman was dressed in a surprisingly simple and practical manner. A dark grey – almost black – breastplate and pauldrons exposed sleeves of crimson. A heavy wrap – the same grey-black and trimmed in red – was held in place by a gold sash, curling around the waist to protect thighs clad in simple grey slacks. The gloves and boots were made of some material she didn't recognize; it appeared stiff enough to offer some protection to forearms and shins, but still flexible enough not to hinder a martial artist's movement. The only adornment to the ensemble was the large gold insignia on the breastplate; the shape was somewhat reminiscent of her dragon amulet, but more menacing somehow.
Lienn's gaze shifted to the woman's face… "What's wrong with her skin?"
It wasn't the fact that her head was completely shaved, or that an unfamiliar symbol had been tattooed at the center of her forehead. It was the fact that the woman's skin was distinctly grey and mottled, her eyes sunken shadows; she looked like she'd been dead days rather than hours.
"No one is entirely certain," Hui replied solemnly, "though I do have a working theory. The Lotus Assassins were once the Order of the Lotus, monks devoted to the spiritual well-being of the Empire. When their leader, Prince Sun Kin, fell at Dirge, the emperor converted the order to what it is now and placed Death's Hand in charge. My theory is that the corruption of their divine purpose, the corruption that Death's Hand brought to the order, has damaged their chi, resulting in… this.
"Death's Hand never goes unmasked, and it's said that neither do his top lieutenants – though few people who have seen them have lived to tell about it, so it may just be a rumor. But I suspect that the higher one rises in the organization, the closer one gets to Death's Hand, the greater the corruption becomes. That his top lieutenants can't go unmasked because their faces are so disfigured." Hui shrugged. "But that's just speculation."
For a long moment, Lienn studied the face of their enemy. Even in death she could sense the… the wrongness that surrounded the assassin. The "corruption" as Hui called it.
Another corruption born of the massacre of Dirge. Another evil Master Li had shielded her from. How many more would she encounter before this was over?
She looked away, only to gasp sharply and spin into Sky's embrace, burying her face in his chest. But it was too late; the image was burned into her mind.
"Poor Smiling Mountain," she murmured, a few hot tears sliding down her face. The gentle giant was bruised and bloodied, almost beyond recognition. Once-kind eyes now stared blankly into the sky.
"I'm sorry, Lienn." Sky hugged her close. "A friend?"
"One of my teachers. I've known him my whole life. He taught me how to read…" Her voice was muffled against the fabric of his vest as her fingers clutched it compulsively, but she felt him nod in reply.
"He was defending the children." The quiet hint of sorrow in Hui's voice persuaded Lienn not to look; she didn't want to see anymore.
Only one thing could persuade her to continue on.
She turned from the shelter of Sky's arms and drew a breath that scoured her throat. "Let's find Dawn Star and go."
Hui glanced around, frowning. "We seem to have searched as much of the school as we can. Unless you can think of another place to look…"
Lienn blinked, realizing they had indeed walked almost the entire circuit. There was a small meadow up the hill behind Master Li's house, but she wouldn't trust the path leading to it. Between the nearness of the smoldering buildings and the flammable trees overhanging the area, it would be far too dangerous to search. The only other possibility…
She turned to her right, carefully avoiding the sight of her fallen teacher, toward the small clearing where he often had them spar. "There's a small training area back there." She pointed to the entrance, which was now blocked by rubble. "There's a back way in along the path back to the flyer. If she isn't there…"
Hui nodded understanding and strode toward the gate.
As they paced back to the school entrance, Lienn found that she was no longer sure what she wanted to find. Seeing the school's destruction firsthand, it seemed impossible that Dawn Star could have survived. If they found her remains, at least Lienn would know what had happened, would be able to find closure and grieve for her oldest and dearest friend. And yet, the idea of never knowing, of holding on to that faint and fragile hope – however unlikely it might be – that perhaps Dawn Star had escaped… Well, right now it seemed very appealing.
They walked beneath the school entryway, its red clay tiles scorched black, and followed an almost-hidden path to the right. The long grass was trampled, and as Lienn stepped over the broken body of a small monkey – the creatures often wandered onto the school grounds from the nearby marsh – she felt her last remnants of hope slipping away.
As the path opened to the training area, Lienn froze. At the center of the clearing, surrounded by tall grasses and burning buildings, a figure was crouched over a body. The figure was definitely a man, though she could tell little else about him through the haze of smoke. And the body… She couldn't see much, but a swath of deep pink silk among the grass told her what she needed to know.
She strode purposefully toward them, but by the third step, her stride had become a run. "Get away from her!"
The man's head snapped in her direction just in time to see the kick she aimed at his face. There wasn't time for him to react, however, and her heel connected with his jaw. The stranger was sent sprawling onto his back.
Lienn tore her sword from its sheath and leveled it at his chin.
Propped up on his forearms, the man shifted his gaze from the blade to Lienn's eyes. Elbows digging into the earth beneath him, he spread his hands in a placating gesture. "Hold your attack, young student. I am not your enemy."
There was no mistaking him for anything but a warrior. He wore padded robes of brown and cream that exposed his right arm, shoulder, and part of his chest – and every inch was layered with hard muscle. His bare skin was etched with old scars: his arm, neck, shoulder, chest… There was even a long scar that ran from his left cheekbone to chin, bisecting his lower lip on its path. His head was shaved, save for a small topknot of black hair at his crown, and it made the stark lines of his face seem even more severe. This was a man who had seen no shortage of battle.
Before Lienn could reply, a hand came to rest on her sword arm, and Hui stepped up beside her. "It's all right. You can lower your weapon." The soldier turned her earnest gaze from Lienn to the stranger. "It's been a long time, Zu."
The man's eyes widened; he seemed just as shocked as Lienn herself was. "Hui? What are you doing here?"
"You two know each other?" Lienn gazed uncertainly from one to the other, but she did lower her sword and allow the man to rise.
"Hui and I knew each other long ago," the man – Zu – explained. "She was a soldier, and I... I needed her help."
Lienn turned to Hui for guidance. "Can we trust him?"
The older woman smiled faintly. "I know Zu to be an honorable man. Not a good man, perhaps, but an honorable one."
Sky's tone was openly suspicious. "That didn't quite answer Lienn's question."
The pained whisper was almost too soft to be heard, but Lienn's head whipped toward the broken figure sprawled on the ground. "Dawn Star?" Her sword fell from numb fingers, landing with a clang as she dropped to her knees beside her friend. She hadn't dared allow herself to believe that Dawn Star might still be alive, yet here she was, gazing up through heavy-lidded eyes, her expression pinched and painful.
"I knew you'd come…" Dawn Star coughed and blood dribbled from the corner of her mouth. "I knew…"
"Just be still…" Lienn's eyes were flickering everywhere at once, her hands hovering a few inches above her friend's body as she tried to catalogue all the damage. She was covered in bruises and lacerations; her torn skirt exposed the shine of a large burn on her thigh almost the size of Lienn's own hand. There was a thick bloody cloth pressed to her middle and when Lienn lifted it…
"Oh gods…" She had been stabbed through the stomach. There was blood everywhere; even as Lienn tried to gauge the depth of the wound it welled up, staining Dawn Star's pink dress crimson and running down her sides to pool in the dirt. "Oh gods," Lienn breathed again, pressing the cloth back down on the wound. She winced as her friend gasped in pain, but she knew no other way to slow the bleeding.
"I did what I could for her." Zu's voice was rough as he came to kneel on Dawn Star's other side. "I just can't seem to stop the bleeding. There's too much damage…" He sounded genuinely upset.
"Dawn Star," Lienn tilted her friend's head, drawing the injured woman's waning focus to herself, "you need to heal yourself. You've done it before. Divert your chi to the wound; make the tissue knit. You can do it."
Dawn Star rocked her head back and forth in a negative. "Tried. Can't focus. Too much pain."
Lienn grimaced. It was true that manipulating chi had always come much more naturally to her than it had to her friend, but still, there had to be a way…
She looked up, desperate eyes meeting Hui's as the soldier knelt beside Zu. "Could I heal her? Is there a way…?"
Hui was already shaking her head. "Manipulating the chi of another takes years of training and practice. Best case scenario, nothing would happen. Worst case, you could increase the damage and harm yourself in the process."
Lienn's frantic gaze shifted from Hui's stony acceptance to Zu's inscrutable grimness, then up to Sky's sad resignation. "There has to be something we can do. Maybe Kang has something…"
Sky sank to his knees at her side and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. His voice was barely more than a whisper as he said, "Sometimes there's nothing you can do but say goodbye."
Lienn jerked as though she'd been slapped, her thoughts wailing in grief and denial. This couldn't be happening. It couldn't end this way…
A gentle touch on her hand drew her attention, and she glanced down to find Dawn Star's delicate hand resting on hers. She gripped her friend's hand in her free one. Dawn Star's eyes were on her, and she couldn't help the hot tears that began running down her face.
"It's all right." Dawn Star's voice was gentle, peaceful. "I've been able to see spirits… my whole life." She drew a gasping breath. "I'm not afraid… of becoming one…"
Her whole body trembled with the effort not to sob; tears ran freely down Lienn's face as she inhaled sharply, nearly choking on the scorching air. This can't be happening…
"This… isn't your fault. I… could always see problems... but you… are destined… to find solutions." Her voice was soft and breathy; her eyes were half-lidded, filled with pain and weariness, but her gaze never wavered from Lienn's eyes. "Just not for this."
Her head shaking vehemently, she clutched her friend's fragile fingers tighter. "There has to be a way. I'll find something…" Her voice was thick with tears she couldn't stop.
"You can't… save me… Lienn." She drew a rattling breath; speaking was becoming noticeably more difficult. "You need… to save… the Empire… You… will set everything right." She gripped Lienn's hand a shade harder as her eyes seemed to lose focus; she was still staring in Lienn's direction, but she no longer seemed to see her. "And when you're done… plant a flower... for me?"
Lienn sniffled and kissed her friend's hand. "I will. A whole garden if you want. I promise."
Dawn Star was smiling faintly, her head tipped toward her friend. Then her breath slipped away with a whisper and her hand went slack. She was gone.
Lienn could only stare. Her eyes went dry, the tracks of spent tears cool on her cheeks. This wasn't real. It couldn't be. Grief was supplanted by numb shock. How could this be real?
"I'm so sorry, Lienn." Sky voice was soft at her side, but his words seemed to have no meaning.
She stared at Dawn Star's face; her expression was peaceful, and there was a hint of a smile on her lips, as though she was sleeping.
No, this isn't real. It doesn't feel real.
A hand covered hers and she jumped. She stared at it, a strong, masculine hand covering her smaller one; Dawn Star's limp fingers sandwiched between them. A firm grip guided hers downward until Dawn Star's palm rested on her stomach, then drew her own hand away.
Still she stared at her friend. It still looked like Dawn Star was sleeping. Surely she'd wake at any moment.
The hand covering her shifted its grip, clutching her fingers tight. "Lienn." She looked up. Sky was watching her through worried eyes. "Lienn, she's gone."
The words sounded foreign, disconnected from their meaning. She could feel her mind trying to reach for some kind of understanding, but none would come.
Her gaze slid from Sky to Hui, from dejection to regret, and then on to their new arrival, Zu. His eyes were downcast, his expression sorrowful. A spark of anger flickered to life in the emptiness. Who was he to sit there looking morose, as if he'd know her? As if he was more than a random stranger. He hadn't known her, hadn't loved her, wouldn't miss her every day. Who was he, anyway?
Fury ignited and Lienn launched herself at this presumptuous stranger, pinning him on his back mere inches from her fallen friend. "Talk! Who are you and what are you doing here?"
Zu looked more surprised than anything else – probably at being flattened by a woman half his size for the second time – but made no effort to struggle.
Beside them, however, Hui made a frantic grab for Lienn's shoulder. "What are you doing?!"
"I want answers and he'd better have some good ones," Lienn snapped, shrugging the older woman off, her attention never wavering from Zu. "You act like you know me. Know us. But I've never seen you before."
"I've tried very hard to go unnoticed," he explained calmly, seeming to take the situation in stride, "but I also need to eat. I've been on the outskirts of your village once or twice to trade goods. I saw you training."
"Why would my training interest you?" Suspicion was thick in her voice.
"I meant nothing. It's just that I was trained fairly well, so I recognize when someone else is skilled."
Lienn regarded him evenly. His words had the ring of truth to them, but… "If you're not an enemy, why were you here?"
"As I said, I sometimes trade goods in the village. I was in the area to do just that. I was setting up camp in the swamp when I saw the flyers overhead. I heard the explosions, saw the smoke rising. It seemed… prudent to investigate."
"Investigate? Investigate?!" Lienn's voice rose to a shriek. "You were going to investigate the destruction of the entire village and murder of everyone in it? As in 'watch but not help'? What is wrong with you?!"
"I understand why you came in here as you did; you were looking to rescue your friend. You probably gave no thought to your own safety. That's very selfless of you. But I tend to think more... efficiently." Zu shrugged, a chill calm in his expression. "But as it happens, I did decide to help… when I spotted Lotus Assassins leaving the village."
His tone was dark, rife with an old anger, and it gave Lienn pause. Whoever he was, his hatred for the Assassins ran deep – a sentiment she now understood quite well. She rose carefully and took a step back, allowing him room to stand.
"We saw a dead Assassin in the courtyard," Hui noted. "Your handiwork, I assume?"
Zu nodded. "By the time I arrived, most of the Assassins had already gone. A group of mercenaries had been ordered to finish off any survivors." His scowl deepened. "A few escaped, filthy cowards. But most of them won't be bothering anyone again. Ever."
"The ones who escaped are in for a nasty surprise. We killed their leader this morning." Sky's smile held a feral satisfaction. "When they get back to Gao's fortress they'll find nothing but corpses."
"Gao… the Greater?" At Sky's nod, Zu frowned. "I know the name, and his reputation. This is a brazen act, even if he is working with the Lotus Assassins. And for Gao the Greater to have them as allies is… troubling."
"Well, Gao won't be troubling anyone ever again." Sky's tone was more than a little smug.
"Perhaps not," Zu conceded. "But the same can't be said for the Lotus Assassins. And if they find out you killed their ally, you may become a target." His gaze shifted to each of them in turn, finally coming to rest on Lienn.
Lienn looked away, her gaze settling on the trampled grass at their feet. If Hui was right, she was already a target, simply by virtue of being Sun Li's protégé.
They killed them – the whole village – to get to me. They killed Dawn Star to get to me. Anger flared and she welcomed it. It was easier to feel the anger than the grief.
Hui, ever the practical one, nodded decisively. "We need to talk, to plan, and this isn't the place for it." She turned to Zu. "You said you have a camp nearby?"
"In the swamp, not far from here." He frowned. "Though a crashed flyer blocked the path to the village gate; it may be difficult to get to."
"We have a flyer on the beach," Hui explained with a negligent shrug. "If you can find your campsite from the air…"
Zu nodded slowly. "I set up camp in a ruined pagoda; it should be easy enough to spot. And I believe there's a clearing nearby where the flyer could land."
"We should head back to the beach then." Hui turn back toward the main path, but Lienn hesitated.
"Are… are we just going to leave her here?" She couldn't even bring herself to look at Dawn Star's still form, but to just leave her here for the crows… "Shouldn't we… I don't know. Give her a proper burial? All of them?"
Hui shook her head. "It would take too long, and it's too dangerous while the town is still burning. We've spent too much time breathing in the smoke already."
"But to just leave them all here…" Lienn looked to Sky for support but found only somber acceptance.
"Lienn, your friends wouldn't want you to endanger yourself just to give them a proper burial. This village is going to burn to the ground; let it be their funeral pyre." Sky took her hand, gripped it tightly in his. "There's nothing more you can do for them."
That's not true, she thought darkly. I can make sure the ones responsible pay. True, Gao the Greater had already paid the ultimate price for his crimes, but his son had certainly had a hand in this; Gao the Lesser would answer for his part, as would the Lotus Assassins. She would see to it personally.
And with those thoughts in mind, she let Sky lead her back through the ruins of her home.
Dawn Star was drifting. It was a welcome respite; the pain of her wounds seemed to have been weighing her down for ages. But now it had faded away, and the rest of the world was following quickly.
She floated there, warm and content, perfectly happy to let the world go on without her. She could hear voices, but they were dim and distant, and she didn't particularly care what they were saying anyway.
So she drifted. And rested. And enjoyed the peace.
Then, slowly, she began to notice a change. Her warm cocoon began to cool. A strange sound, like the constant rustle of a loud breeze, began to fill her ears. Suddenly aware enough to wonder what had happened to her haven, she opened her eyes.
The world had gone blue.
Frowning, she clambered up and looked around. She knew where she was: the training yard of the school in Two Rivers. But it was the school as she had never seen it before. Everything was in shades of blue – the grass, the buildings, the statues – and there was a strange haze in the air, like glowing fog. Strange swirling storm clouds such as she had never seen whipped across the sky, and yet there was no wind, no rain, no sign of a storm whatsoever.
She looked down to examine the strange blue grass and found her own body lying at her feet.
Suddenly she remembered: the attack, the assassins, the school burning around her...
"I'm dead," she realized in shock.
Her entire life she had seen spirits, sensed them, even spoke to them from time to time. But somehow she'd never considered what it would be like to become one herself. As she gazed around at the strange landscape, she suddenly understood why so many of them went mad trapped in the living world. To be trapped in such a familiar place that had somehow become completely alien, lost and alone...
And yet she wasn't alone. She looked around and couldn't see anyone; her eyes told her she was standing in the yard by herself. But she could sense them, hovering just out of sight. Other spirits, people like herself who had fallen in the battle – students, townsfolk, even a few of those assassins...
She paused as her mind settled on those assassins in black. There had been something familiar about them – not the individual people, but the uniforms they wore. She couldn't imagine where she might have seen them before – certainly no one like that had ever come to the village – but something about them tugged at her memory.
And then there was that man, the one who had found her – Zu, he called himself. There was something about him as well, a sadness in his eyes that was strangely familiar to her. But again she couldn't think of why.
She supposed it mattered little at this point. She was cut off from that world; it was as dead to her as she was to it.
But what was she to do now? She knew that now her spirit was supposed to begin its journey to the underworld, but the spirits she had spoken with in the past had told her that the Shepherd of the Dead was gone. There was no longer anyone to guide the spirits of the dead on to the place of judgment and rebirth. Without a guide, how was she to know which way to go?
Then, to her amazement, she felt something new. A tug, deep inside herself, pulling her away from the village.
She didn't understand it.
She couldn't ignore it.
Compelled by a power far beyond her own, Dawn Star turned away from the only home she'd ever known and began the long walk towards... somewhere.
4/12/2014 A/N: Many apologies for the long delay. There was a death in the family, and afterward, I just couldn't face writing this chapter – for obvious reasons. But I've had some time, and it was actually kinda cathartic. Hope you all enjoyed.
Also, I want to send a big thank you to everyone who's reviewed and/or followed this story since my last update. (It's been ages, I know.) You guys are usually the kick in the butt I need to get going again when I've stalled. Thanks for the reviews, and for reading!